Mosaic / Reviews / September 21, 2011

‘Contagion’ delights biologists, but not film buffs

It is a universal sign in film: if a character coughs, they’re going to be dead within the next 20 minutes.

The cough of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in the recent movie “Contagion” was particularly notable, however, because it was a cough that went beyond such stereotypical foreshadowing. It was a cough heard ‘round the world and one that would eventually kill 30 percent of the earth’s population. Playing “patient zero” in a pandemic of a deadly, previously unknown virus, Paltrow’s character picks up her nasty bug on a business trip to Asia and subsequently sparks an outbreak of epic proportions.

Told through the eyes of multiple characters, the film covers every possible viewpoint in an epidemic: the government officials taking heat when they can’t control the virus, individual victims, health care workers on the front line, scientists and still-healthy people desperate to remain that way. Although I’ve seen many an outbreak film, this was the first to address the possibility that social media sites —Twitter, Facebook, Google+ — can fuel rumors and cause just as great a public health threat as the disease itself.

It was also the most realistic of the films. From showing actual, 100 percent realistic lab equipment (the centrifuges were from BioRad!), to correctly identifying who would be sent to the front lines of an epidemic (a member of the Epidemiologic Intelligence Service – basically the SWAT team of the Center for Disease Control), it was clear the producers did their research. As a biology nerd and a wanna-be epidemiologist, I nearly died with delight when the movie explained, in great detail, how exactly a virus like this might spread. They even did it without sounding like a textbook.

The individual characters were enjoyable, as well. It was easy ­— and slightly comic — to see the frustration of hormone-laced teenagers no longer allowed to engage in physical contact for fear of spreading the virus. A village’s desperation to receive the eventual vaccine was palpable and made their decision to take a hostage understandable. One flaw: I still debate whether a father’s lack of grief over the death of his wife and son was a deliberate choice (day-to-day survival efforts must exclude sorrow) or just left out by the screenwriters.

The movie certainly can’t be faulted for lacking big names. “Contagion” stars household names such as Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Demetri Martin, in addition to Paltrow. Although no actor or actress, major or minor, put in anything even approaching the performance of a lifetime, the acting was solid throughout the film. Not once did I catch myself rolling my eyes at an awkwardly-delivered line or an excess of cheesiness. Eye widening from terror, perhaps — the thought of dying from a virus that eats away at your neurological system is unpleasant, to say the least — but no eye-rolling.

Unfortunately, the movie’s major flaw came down to the fact that an outbreak story can only be told in so many ways. Someone gets infected; it spreads like wildfire and society approaches collapse. Although “Contagion” gets major brownie points for re-hashing said themes in uber-realistic ways, at the end of the day, it’s just another doomsday tale.

Katy Sutcliffe


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